One of the most difficult things to pin down as a writer, especially a NEW writer, is the pacing of your story. Pacing is the speed and rhythm of a story, the speed with which events take place, and the balance between each part of the story. Does the story start with a hook? Is the beginning too long? Does the middle drag on? Does the ending feel sudden? Is the resolution too abrupt?
The writer is often detached from what a story feels like to a reader. We know this story intimately, so it’s as easy to gloss over pacing errors as it is to gloss over typos. If we don’t miss the pacing issues, we invent them: Wow, does that beginning seem short? Oh God, this scene is draaaaging!
There are a few ways a writer can avoid pacing issues in their stories. Pacing issues can either be resolved or avoided. I have two methods of resolving pacing issues–for those of you who are in the middle of a project or who have completed projects that still need work–and two methods of avoiding pacing issues for your current or future projects.
To resolve pacing issues in a completed draft:
Set your work aside
Stop working on it entirely. No editing, no beta readers, no planning sequels, not even an inspiration board. Resist. I recommend setting it aside for at least a month.
When you finally pick it back up, read it as a reader, not a writer or an editor. Don’t pick at it (OK, OK, yes, you can fix that typo…). The only thing you should focus on is:
- Is it easy to read?
- Does any of the pacing feel off?
If it’s not easy to read, you might want to re-write it altogether, which is what I generally recommend for revisions anyway. If you do, you can follow the two recommendations for avoiding pacing issues.
If you feel, or even wonder, if the pacing is off, jot it down as soon as you notice. Go back a bit and note where you think the pacing drifted. Repeat throughout the manuscript.
When you are done with your read-through, determine whether the pacing issues you indicated are actual issues. I recommend being highly discriminating. Cut and expand each scene or part as needed. This is a major “kill your darlings” moment, as cutting to fix pacing issues is a bit more difficult than cutting something that does not serve the story.
Ask your beta readers
Explain to your betas what pacing is and that you are concerned about it. Have them pay special attention as they read to where their attention begins to drift, or how they feel about the length of each part and event.
When you receive your beta readers’ feedback, mark the parts in the story they expressed concerns about. Determine how the scenes can been altered or re-structured in order to resolve the issue.
To avoid pacing issues as you are writing:
Outline with a structure in mind
I’m sure you expected for me to say “outline,” but just an outline isn’t going to save you from pacing issues. I outlined COLOSSUS, and it has glaring pacing issues, because if I thought of a new scene, I would just throw it in the outline.
However, there are several structures you can use to contain your outline, to help you keep your pacing in check. Below I detail the three-act, four-act, six-act, and Hero’s Journey structures.
The three-act structure is the one we typically learn in school: A story has a short-ish beginning with a hook and an inciting incident (which, NO, do not need to be the same event), a long middle that works up to a climax, and a short end that contains the resolution.
Since this format has been beaten into our heads, I’m going to leave it at that.
I don’t recall where I picked up this structure, but I think it was from Kellie Sheridan’s videos on the Word Nerds’ Youtube channel. I could not find a graphic for it, though, but I had one on a Post-it. I drew it out a bit more clearly for you.
The four-act structure occurs in four equal-ish parts that have their own mid-points.
The set-up: you get a feel for the world and characters, and encounter the inciting incident.
Transition: the main character is forced to react. They are reluctant to do so.
The reaction: the main character sets out to uncover how to resolve the main conflict. They generally have only a vague concept of what they’re up against. We encounter a show of evil, in which we discover the extent of the threat.
The attack: The main character thinks they have the ability to resolve the main conflict. But they don’t. The stakes are suddenly higher than they anticipated.
Transition: the main character is compelled to the conclusion. They are not forced this time, but embrace their mission.
The final showdown: the main character actively seeks to face the conflict head-on. The climax occurs, and the ending follows.
This chart is fairly self-explanatory. It caters more toward stage and screen, but I think MG and YA novels benefit from this structure.
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is my personal favorite of the structures, although I’ve never attempted to write a story modelled after it. It was developed by Joseph Campbell after studying hero mythology in several different cultures, and he argued they all followed the same basic structure.
It is also a three-act structure, in which the first and third act are about thirty percent of the story, and the middle should be about sixty percent. However, it has some fairly set pinch points. For the sake of the length of this post, I’m not going to go into the details; They are explained well here on Wikipedia.
Structure each component of the story
Once you have chosen an overall structure, plan out each section, scene, and chapter. They all need to have a beginning, middle, and ending; a want, and attempt, and either a success or a failure.
They should NOT all be the same length, because that would make your book too monotonous or predictable. They don’t even have to be distinguishable to the reader, only you.
The topic of pacing is near and dear to my heart specifically because–as I mentioned above–pacing is the most conspicuous technical issue in my first novel, COLOSSUS. Fortunately, I recognized that and re-wrote Two Guns in order to avoid repeating the same mistake. Although I didn’t use a specific structure for Two Guns, I am going to adhere to the four-act structure while I write RUIN, the third (and final…?) book of the Run Rabbit Run series.
My next project, The Shadow Falls, is going to follow the Hero’s Journey. I’m so excited about writing it, because it’s MG or YA dark fantasy. I think I may write a post devoted specifically to the Hero’s Journey structure while I’m polishing that outline.
I hope you found these tips useful, and you’re already considering ways to apply them to your writing! If you have your own tips or a personal story about taming (or failing to tame) the pacing in your own work, let us know in the comments below.
Want to support me? Buy me a coffee!
Looking for something else? Try my Anna Lillian Wade romances: